In an interview last week with former Bachelorette lead Rachel Lindsay, longtime Bachelor host and weird franchise father figure Chris Harrison stepped in to defend a current contestant from a brewing internet controversy. In 2018, this Bachelor season’s front-runner Rachael Kirkconnell posted an Instagram photo of herself at an antebellum-themed sorority party, wearing a costume meant to evoke a glamorous, nostalgic image of the slave-owning South. Harrison argues that although the photo is “not a good look in 2021,” it was much more excusable in 2018. Lindsay, who is Black, and whose role in Bachelor Nation has only increased in her time since becoming the franchise’s first Black lead, pushes back at Harrison’s suggestion that an “old South” party was somehow more acceptable in 2018. “It was a party celebrating the old South,” Lindsay says. “If I went to that party, what would I represent?” Harrison ignores her, superficially saying he agrees with her before plowing ahead. “You’re a hundred percent right in 2021,” Harrison says. “That was not the case in 2018.”
It’s a bad moment for Harrison, one that reveals not just how easy it is for him to sympathize with Kirkconnell, but also how easy it is for him to ignore Lindsay. After this appearance, Harrison announced he would be taking a temporary step back from the show; both Harrison and Kirkconnell have apologized and promised to do better in the future. But Harrison’s absence from the franchise — an absence of undetermined duration — inevitably raises the question of whether he should ever come back. Setting aside the issue of how long a reasonable leave of absence is for one to learn how not to be racist, Harrison more than any other person is the face of the Bachelor franchise. If The Bachelor is actually committed to addressing its racist past and reforming its racist present, is he still the right person to be the franchise’s most prominent figure?
Harrison is, by many measures, a great host of The Bachelor. It’s not a mistake he’s hung onto the role this long. Hosting a reality show is a different gig depending on the specifics of different shows, their tone, the ins and outs of the competition, and the typical kinds of contestants and challenges. Andy Cohen has to maintain a on-screen relationship with the Real Housewives that toggles between scolding and eyebrow-waggling invitation. Hosts of musical competition shows have to be encouraging and opinionated. Jeff Probst’s role on Survivor has often involved meddling directly with the group dynamics while seeming not to. Harrison’s niche, and the way The Bachelor has evolved along with his hosting persona, has cast him as a soothing paternal figure. He’s someone who asks how you’re doing, laughs happily along with the show’s big goofs, and appears at moments of transition or stress. He’s the feelings doula when things get really big. “Be honest with me,” he’ll say. “Is this what you really want?” But he’s also the guy who sits across from the contestants in the live shows and has to ask them, with semi-sternness, if they regret the pain they’ve caused.
It’s not an easy job, and more often than not Harrison has done it remarkably well. He can modulate his persona pretty smoothly based on what arm of the franchise he’s operating inside. On Bachelor, he is the lead’s knowing, friendly uncle, probing for personal details; on Bachelorette, he’s more of a protective presence, making sure the lead’s heart is not too badly bruised and appearing proud when she exhibits strength. On the franchise’s many silly spinoffs (Bachelor Winter Games, Bachelor in Paradise), he’s the Cool Dad, reminding everyone to have fun and be careful, with a big, over-obvious wink at the end.
As the franchise has evolved, though, its narratives have been as much about what happens off-screen as what appears in the officially sanctioned Bachelor episodes. All of the paratexts — tabloids, spoiler blogs, subreddits, Instagram accounts — have become increasingly textual. Producers have used interactions that happen off the show to amp up the drama since the beginning of the franchise, but the past several years have made contestants’ social-media accounts and public appearances into huge turning points in the show. Garrett Yrigoyen and Becca Kufrin had to talk about Yrigoyen’s history of liking Instagram memes of gruesome immigration jokes. Colton Underwood’s season was shaped by leaks about contestants who left the set. Filming for Clare Crawley’s first Bachelor in Paradise season halted when reports came out about sexual misconduct, and Harrison later led an on-screen conversation with the contestants about consent. (Also the first time I called for his retirement.) Drama on this season involved yet another off-screen development — the discovery of Kirkconnell’s Instagram post.
It makes sense that as the franchise has incorporated more off-screen stories in its on-screen narratives about contestants, Chris Harrison would be held to the same standard. Any Bachelor contestant who gave an interview like Harrison’s would’ve been pulled into a similarly massive firestorm of attention both on and off the show and would almost certainly have had to sit across from Harrison on a velour sofa in a live special while being grilled about their choices. If the contestant’s off-screen media lives are fodder for the show, it follows that Harrison’s would be as well. And if he can’t manage to not be casually racist in those media appearances, then why should he continue to hold the position of franchise host?
ABC and the franchise’s distributor Warner Bros. have been painfully slow to address The Bachelor’s racism. Lindsay was the first Black lead of Bachelorette, something that didn’t happen until 2017. Matt James is the first Black lead of Bachelor, which took three more years to happen. The cast has become more diverse in both its leads and its contestants, but casting a more diverse pool of contestants isn’t enough to shift the deeper racist power dynamics on the show. Vulture’s Bachelor recapper Ali Barthwell has a fantastic list of some of the most egregiously racist moments in the past several seasons, which include things like “pitting contestants of color against racist contestants,” “letting white contestants use racist language to describe contestants of color they didn’t like,” and “not protecting or standing behind contestants or leads of color when they were targeted for racist harassment online.” These are not problems that can be solved with cast diversity. These are problems that stem from implicit and explicitly racist ideologies that power the franchise. This is some upper level shit.
Removing Chris Harrison as the host of the show will not fix The Bachelor’s ongoing race problems. Although he holds a position of power in the franchise, he’s still beholden to producers and network executives who shape and approve much of the show. Like casting more leads and contestants of color, replacing Chris Harrison is an insufficient Band-Aid on a much bigger problem. But that doesn’t make it any less worth doing. He is a primary part of the franchise’s identity, and few franchises are more in need of an identity overhaul. Replacing Harrison would be a sign that the show’s producers do take racism seriously and are taking real steps to address it. Letting him return will also be a clear indication of The Bachelor’s priorities — a signal that the franchise has no interest in changing a damn thing.
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